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Joyner-Kersee answers challenge with repeat gold 'THE GREATEST EVER'


BARCELONA, Spain -- Jackie Joyner-Kersee had just completed her victory lap when Bruce Jenner put his arm around her neck and said, "May I say heartiest congratulations to the greatest ever."

Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion, didn't just mean the greatest heptathlete ever. He called Joyner-Kersee the "greatest multi-event athlete in history, man or woman."

That's lofty praise, but Joyner-Kersee has now won a silver medal and two golds in the only three Olympic heptathlons ever contested -- and a tight hamstring is frequently cited as the reason for her narrow five-point defeat in 1984.

"She's been one step ahead of the rest of the world, and she's continued to stay one step ahead of the rest of the world," Jenner said. "I can't say enough about her. She's Dan and Dave, all wrapped into one."

Joyner-Kersee, 30, finished with 7,044 points, the highest total of any heptathlete in 1992. The Unified Team's Irina Belova took second with 6,845 points, and Germany's Sabine Braun was third with 6,649.

No other woman in history has cleared 7,000 points, a barrier Joyner-Kersee has broken six times, including her world record of 7,291 at the 1988 Olympics. She also is the defending Olympic long jump champion and will defend that title Friday.

She has seemingly nothing left to accomplish in the sport, but talked last night of competing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, saying "it would be a dream come true" to finish her career on American soil.

The question is, would anyone notice? For all her accomplishments, Joyner-Kersee is hardly an American icon. Track and field is much more popular in Europe, but Olympic Stadium was nearly empty at her moment of triumph last night.

The 800-meter heptathlon run was the last event on the program, and Joyner-Kersee had built such a convincing lead, most fans thought it unnecessary to remain for the conclusion of the two-day, seven-phase competition.

She has been so good for so long, and the heptathlon is too cumbersome to stir excitement like, say, the 100-meter --. Joyner-Kersee is not only the Babe Ruth of her sport, but also the Lou Gehrig. Her greatness comes from longevity, her ability to grind it out.

"For me, it's a challenge," Joyner-Kersee said. "It's a challenge trying to beat myself, do better than I did in the past. I try to put out of my mind what I've accomplished, and focus on what I'm trying to accomplish in the future.

"In '88, even though I won the gold medal, I knew I wanted to come back in '92. I had to put that behind me. It's been tough mentally. People see me as being invincible. But every day at practice, I'm trying to keep that motivation, keep that desire."

It's not only a mental battle, but also a physical one. Joyner-Kersee pulled her right hamstring in the 200 at the 1991 world track and field championships in Tokyo. The injury resulted in her first heptathlon defeat since 1984, and only added to her resolve.

She is so far ahead of the competition that opponents resort to mind games to psych her out. Joyner-Kersee describes herself as a "very easygoing person" who enjoys mingling with her competitors. Not everyone is as pleasant in return.

"I took her to the bullfights when we first got here," said Joyner-Kersee's husband and coach, Bob Kersee. "I said: 'You've got to be the matador and make everyone else the bulls. You've got to take the red cape and say: 'Here I am. Take your best shot.' "

Joyner-Kersee did, so now her opponents will have to think of something else.

Their best hope might be if the Kersees decide to start a family, but that prospect doesn't seem imminent. "Where'd you read that, the National Enquirer?" Joyner-Kersee asked, in mock anger.

She wants to have children, but she also wants to compete at the 1993 world track and field championships in Stuttgart, Germany, and the 1994 U.S. Olympic Festival in her hometown (( of St. Louis.

"It's up to her," Kersee said. "We've got the world championships next year and, God willing, the Olympic Games in 1996. Unless she buys one [a baby] at J.C. Penney, I don't know where she's going to get it."

No, even at age 30, Joyner-Kersee can't stop.

"I remember in '84, I told her, 'You've got to be like Rafer Johnson. When he got the silver medal [in the 1956 decathlon], he had to wait four years and come back in 1960 to win the gold.'

"After Seoul, I told her: 'You've got to be like Bob Mathias. He did it in '48 and came back again in '52.' Three in a row? Talk to any decathlete, they'll tell you to keep it at that level, she has to be a little loose upstairs."

Kersee was joking.

His wife is solid gold.

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